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Song arrangement is as much an art form as writing great music or lyrics. However, as it is inextricably tied up in the songwriting process it is often not seen as a separate skill in and of itself. From a music theory standpoint arranging is the rhythmic and harmonisation (i.e. chord) choices you make to underpin the lyrics and the melody.
At one end of the arrangement continuum, a bear minimum arrangement would involve a single instrument such as a piano, and a voice. The other end might involve a full band along with orchestration, i.e. many layers and parts. As we give birth to a song we make decisions about the best ways to present our new collection of words and music. Are there drums? What feel? Guitars? How will they contribute to the whole? There are decisions about ‘parts’, i.e. will the guitar strum the chords or arpeggiate them? Will we cover the main chords with both guitar and keyboard? What paths will they each take? Bass? Etc. etc. These considerations all together make up the arrangement of the song.
Regardless of whether a song finds itself at the minimal or the complex end, your job as the arranger is to create a sympathetic foundation for the lyrics and the melody, the two key elements. The arrangement must create enough interest to keep your listener engaged, while at the same time getting out of the way of these key elements. It can be a tricky balance. The arrangement should help to propel the lyrics along when pace is needed, and it should help to turn on all the spotlights at those significant moments, such as the hook. Of course the lyrics and melody do some of this work as well. A good arrangement works in conjunction with the lyrics and the melody. They’re a team...but the star of the show is the vocal.
I wrote in a previous article about dynamics and their importance in creating great songs. Dynamics are a part of the arrangement toolbox. See the dynamics ideas for a recap on some of the more popular approaches.
Let’s dive in and have a look at an example song to talk about arrangement. The Arctic Monkeys song, ‘One For the Road’, is, I believe, a great example of a strong arrangement. The music has a story to it as much as the vocal does. The arrangement draws us in. Check it out here:
I don't know about you...but I'm hankering for a cigarette after that!
We could pick a bunch of songs to do this with...it’s a fun and enlightening exercise, especially for songs that you feel really define something in music. Identifying the devices that move a song forward and articulating how they work will help you to grow as a writer / arranger. You can be more intentional with the arrangement choices you make for your songs.
There’s a great series by Rick Beato on YouTube called, ‘What makes this song great?’. Rick gets into a bit of the music theory side of things, as well as the arrangement and production elements that work together for the song in focus. He is a total music nerd, which is awesome. Check him out.
One last bit:
I came across this article the other week. It is an interesting study on a well known song that became a huge hit with it’s fifth artist, and not before. The song was written by none other than Burt Bacharach and Hal David back in the 1960s (it’s an oldie, but a goodie). A collection of well known artists and producers all failed to get this one off the ground. But then a hero, with a new arrangement, came along and the rest is history. Read it here:
What’s a song you think has some great arrangement elements worth talking about? Leave a comment below...let’s talk about music.
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